Two Memorial Day Stories


by Lane Wallace

Two stories worth listening to, this Memorial Day:

The first comes from Friday's "Morning Edition" on NPR: The story of Allen Hoe, whose son Nainoa was killed in Iraq in 2005. On a trip to the Vietnam Memorial to honor his son, Hoe meets ... in a one-in-a-million chance encounter ... the Army trauma nurse who was with his son when he died. If your eyes stay dry while listening to this short clip, you're a tougher soul than I am. (A transcript of Hoe's words is also available at the above link. But do yourself a favor. Listen to the clip itself.)

The second, also courtesy of NPR, is last Wednesday's rebroadcast of a 1998 "Fresh Air" interview with AIDS activist Rodger McFarlane, who died May 15th at the age of 54. McFarlane was a military veteran. He spent four years in the Navy, on submarine duty, as a nuclear reactor technician. But not all enemies carry weapons.

And the battles for which McFarlane is best known were those he fought against an enemy called AIDS ... fighting the spread of it, and working to help care for those it brought down. The first national AIDS hotline, in the summer of 1982, was McFarlane's home telephone. The Gay Men's Health Crisis, which provided client services to people suffering from AIDS, evolved from that hotline, as did numerous other AIDS service organizations.

In 1998, McFarlane folded his years of experience helping seriously ill and dying people through the health care maze, and through the end-of-life experience, into a book called The Complete Bedside Companion: No-Nonsense Advice on Caring for the Seriously Ill.

In the NPR interview, McFarlane talked about not only his AIDS work, but about his growing awareness of the universal elements in coping with any terminal illness. "What we have in common interests me so much more than what separates us," he said. Indeed, one of the things that struck me most, listening to the clip, was the powerful sense of humanity McFarlane seemed to possess. Even when faced with life's unvarnished, difficult moments. Which, for McFarlane, included caring for his own ailing father, despite the lingering anger he felt because of his father's failure to protect him and his brothers from their mother's abuse.

He got involved in AIDS work, McFarlane said undramatically, "because I had to. Those were our friends and our lovers, and they were not being cared for." They're the kind of words you hear from most people who perform extraordinary feats of valor. Simple. As if there were no other choice.

But there were no simple or happy endings in McFarlane's world ... not even for himself. Once an impressive athlete and explorer, McFarlane broke his back in 2002 and was facing increasing back and heart trouble. And despite saying in the NPR interview that most people, even when they were ill, "still wanted one more day," he took his own life, in the end. Yet listening to him talk about life, death, and the burdens we all struggle with ... I got the sense that McFarlane had found ... if not peace, exactly, then at least a measure of grace in it all.

(Image by Flickr user AJW_93)